When time management becomes a waste of time

How to simplify busy schedules – the bane (and status symbol) of many senior managers – has exercised time-management gurus and life coaches for decades. More often than not, their advice merely serves to re-affirm some basic rules that people already know but don’t apply.

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Jul 02, 2018
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‘The conclusions of recent research always smack of common sense’ says management writer, Andrew Hill in a recent FT article. ‘Schedule shorter meetings. Stay off email. Meet your team members and customers in person. Exercise. Stay off email. Get a good night’s sleep. Schedule time for spontaneous encounters, paradoxical though that sounds. Stay. Off. Email.’

Email is the big time-waster. It sucks up management time on issues better resolved by others. When the pace of incoming emails exceeds the time needed to read them and respond, it’s time to develop a rational and effective email delete policy.

As well as limiting the volume and modes of electronic communications, another enemy of well-managed time seems to be the ‘back-to-back’ meetings. They leave no time to reflect or plan. Pre-planning, says one CEO, is the key to an efficient working day.

For CEOs, the risks of back to back meetings is high. Research conducted by Harvard Business School’s Michael Porter and Nitin Nohria reveals that some 72% of CEO work time is spent in meetings, most lasting 30-60 minutes. That isn’t necessarily optimal, but it risks becoming a benchmark.

Of course, the research focuses on a certain type of male CEO. Other senior executives might work or live very differently. Indeed, how we live and work is ever-changing, and time management techniques are changing too. Electronic diaries are able to summarise our week’s work, calculating whether we are spending too much time with the wrong people. Apps can restrain our smart-phone addictions. Exercise trackers can tell us how long it has taken to reached our mileage goals.

But even if one can make reasonable trade-offs in our schedule, we don't always do so based on quality and impact of the scheduled event. How does one assess the true business benefits of regular deep thinking when there’s no obvious result to point to? What is the long-term value of attending an important family event, finishing a great novel or working out a little harder in the gym, when such activities exceed their allotted times?

Ultimately, CEOs must judge what counts most, works best and needs more time? In other words, within a few basic rules, perhaps it's better to let the CEO get on with it, and let everyone else judge by the results.

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Paul Lewis

Editorial director, Headspring

Paul Lewis is a writer and editor, specialising in business, management, economics and politics.